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Saltwater Melodies

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When he arrived at the docks to join the rest of the group for their weekend expedition out to the island, Yuri was running on next to no sleep. He’d stayed up late trying to max his character’s XP out and level him up for the assault on the Andromeda base, and was still pretty pissed about the invading team kicking them out after only a week.

And that was on top of all the pressure of upcoming midterms, plus the concerts at the end of the month - his mom kept cutting off his gaming time, telling him he should be studying or rehearsing instead. As if he didn’t do that all the time anyways! And to make matters worse, his mom and dad weren’t talking much to each other. He didn’t even know what their most recent argument had been about.

Spending most of his last day of freedom before the school week out here in the middle of nowhere was not his ideal way to cap things off. So yeah, Yuri was not having a great weekend.

“Someone’s in a rotten mood,” Viktor commented as Yuri climbed out of Dedushka’s car and slammed the door behind him.

Thanks for stating the obvious.

“Shut up, baldy,” Yuri growled.

Viktor blinked, hurt.

“That was uncalled for,” Sara said, frowning. “What’s your deal, Yuri?”

“He’s losing a video game thing,” Mila said, crossing her arms. “It’s no excuse to be mean, though.”

“Shut up!” He was already regretting complaining to Mila while Otabek had been at work.

“Yuri, for the love of God,” Mila groaned. “Get a grip! There are things out there more important than your video game.”

“Yeah? Don’t you think I know that?” Yuri snapped.

“Jesus Christ, you are such a fucking pill,” Mila shot back at him. She winced and looked at Dedushka. “Sorry, Mr. Plisetsky.”

“No need to apologize,” he answered. “I will be at Anderson. You can call me if needed.” He rolled up the window and pulled away from the curb, heading for the parking lot exit and leaving Yuri with the others.

“So what’s our plan?” Sara asked, cracking her knuckles. “I’ve never been out to the island before.”

“The plan is to get to the lagoon and start poking around before what’s-his-name can stumble on it,” Viktor said, not looking at Yuri. “We’re just waiting on Masu with the rental, and then we can head out.”

“This is so stupid,” Yuri grumbled. “We already looked around the lagoon and we didn’t find anything!”

“We didn’t know what to look for,” Mila said. “And I guess we still don’t, but at least we’ll have fresh eyes.”

“Masu said he wanted to see the lagoon in daylight,” Viktor added.

Yuri snorted. “Right, because that’s a good idea.”

Mila’s eyes narrowed. “Hey, Yuri, can I see your phone?”

“What? No! Fuck off, Baba!”

Mila’s eyebrows went up. “What are you trying to hide from me, Yura?” She grinned. “You texting a girl? Maybe Izzy from band?”

“Fuck you!” Yuri dug his phone out of his pocket and waved it in her face. “I’m not–”

Mila snatched it from him and tossed it to Sara. Before Yuri could react, she then picked him up under his armpits and threw him off the dock. He landed in the water with a splash.

There was a tingling all over his body, and then he was swarmed by those annoying little lights that meant his tail had replaced his legs. He surfaced with a screech and glared up at all of them and their varying expressions of amusement. “Fuck you, Baba!

“You needed to cool off,” Mila said breezily. “Don’t worry, Sara’s putting your phone in her waterproof pack.”

“There’s room for everyone’s phones,” Sara added in a helpful tone.

FUCK.YOU.” Yuri bellowed. “Someone could have seen!”

“There’s no one here, and if you stop screaming like a banshee, you won’t attract attention.” Mila crossed her arms and cocked a hip. “I checked before I did anything. Chill out, Yura.”

“Here,” Viktor said, handing his phone to Sara. “Might as well put it away now. It’s already in airplane mode.”

“Good call.”

“Hey guys,” Chris’s boyfriend called from further out. He jogged up to join the group and caught sight of Yuri in the water. “Huh. Tail.” He shook himself. “I’ll get used to it. Are we all ready to head out?”

“Yup,” Mila said. “You got the boat?”

“Yep, down that way,” Masu said, pointing. “Sara, you come with me. One of you three needs to meet us on the south shore to guide us into the cove. Chris said we would have a better chance of finding it with one of you three present.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Viktor agreed. He and Mila both jumped into the water on either side of Yuri, glowing as they transformed too.

Mila held up her waterproof phone in its carrying case and opened the map app. “Shouldn’t take us long to reach the lagoon if we book it.”

“I’ll wait on the shore for these two,” Viktor said. “You two go straight to the cove.”

“No,” Yuri said. “I have the heating power, I’ll dry off faster. You two go to the lagoon to dry off and I’ll wait for the boat.” He glared at Sara. “Don’t fuck up my phone.”

“I’ll keep it safe,” Sara said, raising a hand. “Scout’s honor.”

“You think you’ll be able to find the cove?” Viktor asked, raising an eyebrow.

Yuri rolled his eyes. “Sure. How hard can it be?”

 

“Jesus frickin’ Christ,” Yuri yelled, stomping through the woods a good hour later.

“Be quiet!” Sara shushed him. “Did you forget about JJ? He’s close by, and this island isn’t that big!”

“I know it’s not that big, and yet I can’t find that fucking lagoon!” Yuri snapped.

“Calm down, Yuri,” Masu said. “We should be heading in the right direction. The worst that could happen is we hit the western shore and hike north until we hit that outlet.”

FUCK,” Yuri said, with feeling.

“Yuri, please,” Sara said, rolling her eyes.

“Wait,” Masu said, catching their attention. “Look! In the ground!”

“Don’t touch it,” Sara said sharply.

Yuri and Sara watched as Masu picked up a long stick and used it to push the fallen leaves and grass off of the huge stone he’d found. Yuri had to double back to see it, but there it was: another stone set into the ground, just like the whale stone up at the north end of the island.

Remembering what had happened that time, Yuri stepped away from it and refused to come any closer. He couldn’t see what was on the stone, but that didn’t really matter to him.

“What is that?” Sara craned her neck so she could see the carving in the right direction. “It looks like a hieroglyph.”

“It probably is, or some kind of pictogram,” Masu agreed, digging in his bag for something. He pulled out a digital camera and squatted down to snap some pictures. “Synchronicities,” he said after a moment of furious photo-taking. “I was doing some research online about all this stuff yesterday. There’s a whole community dedicated to looking into weird phenomena, and there’s a group that has a scientific method to investigate it.”

“Not following,” Sara said, standing back and crossing her arms.

“So there’s an investigative group that’s actually based locally,” Masu said, putting his camera away. “Not near us, but near the California/Arizona border. They call themselves TUC, short for The Unknown Country.”

“That’s creepy as fuck,” Yuri said, fighting the urge to shudder.

“I guess so,” Masu agreed with a shrug. “They seemed like quacks at first, because they have all these blog entries about hunting Bigfoot and UFOs, and of course they investigate ghosts and hauntings. It’s like an umbrella conspiracy theory where if one part is true, all of the parts are true. But these people are being super thorough and logical with their research and investigations, and they’ve found some compelling evidence that I was able to look through. It’s uncanny, I’m talking about ghost voices and independent confirmation of what they find during their night hunts.”

“Right,” Sara said. “But we’re talking about merpeople and weird ocean sorcery, which we’ve seen with our own eyes.”

“The thing is, yes, we’ve seen this phenomena and even lived it,” Masu said, putting his camera away. “And these people, if we went to them - which we won’t, I don’t know what to make of them yet - they wouldn’t have seen anything we’ve seen. So they’d think we sound crazy, until we showed them everything. Why wouldn’t it be true the other way around?”

“Gotta say, you’re sliding into this weirdness a lot easier than Chris did,” Sara said, snorting. “Mila said that he breaks out in hives if anyone so much as says the word ‘magic’ in front of him.”

“Chris is very logical,” Masu said. “He’s not prone to fanciful thinking. This is probably shaking him to his core. I think that he thinks, deep down inside, that all this magic stuff can be explained with real fringe science, possibly quantum physics.” He pulled something that looked like a portable video game out of his pack and started punching buttons on it.

“Like in Thor,” Yuri said, feeling something click in his brain. “Sufficiently advanced technology is the same thing as magic to someone not as advanced.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think he thinks,” Masu nodded. “I’m not so sure about anything at this time, but I was also raised in a religious household, and he wasn’t. My parents firmly believe in miracles. I went through Confirmation, I attended a Catholic high school and had mandatory theology classes. I may not be Christian anymore, but I’m more agnostic than atheist. Whatever presents itself to me, I’m not going to be horribly surprised.”

That was… something. “Cool,” Yuri said, swinging his arms. “Great. You done here?”

“I was gonna say,” Masu said, pulling his bag back onto his shoulder. “The Unknown Country calls coincidences like this ‘synchronicities’ when they’re not just coincidental.” He paused, kinda dramatically. “You not being able to lead us straight to the cove, and us wandering around in the woods until we find this? This is a synchronicity. We were meant to find this stone.”

The forest was uncannily quiet, and Yuri didn’t even bother trying not to shiver. The air felt heavy, heavier than the typical summer heat.

“Is that a good thing?” Sara wondered.

“I think it just is,” Masu answered.

“Let’s keep going,” Yuri said, and turned back to the direction he’d been heading.

 

The frustrating thing was they found the lagoon almost immediately after that.

“Where the fuck were you guys?” Mila demanded as they broke the tree cover and caught sight of the water. “We’ve been dry for well over half an hour!”

“We got lost in the woods,” Sara said, distracted. She was staring at the lagoon with wide eyes, sweeping her gaze over the little beach and the huge rock, looking at the cliff that they’d all fallen off of during the eclipse, the weird way that the trees seemed to stop suddenly at an invisible line. “Something weird happened,” she added.

What?!” Mila and Viktor both said at once.

“We found another ground stone,” Masu said, dropping his bag and pulling his camera out. “Look, check it out.” He turned it on and opened the gallery.

Curious, Yuri joined Mila and Viktor in crowding around Masu to look at the camera screen.

Mila gasped. “That looks like…”

The carving on the perfectly-smooth, perfectly-round rock was weird - it looked like a moon set into a large circle, with what looked like rays of light shooting out of the center of the circle.

“It’s an eclipse,” Viktor said. “It’s a solar eclipse. The crescent is the sun, and the rounder part is the moon passing in front of it.”

“How do you know that?” Sara asked, making a face.

“It was in the books I’ve been reading. This is a symbol that represents solar eclipses to the Tani, and it might also be the same thing to the Sea Folk.”

“Holy shit,” Mila said.

Masu glanced at Viktor. “Did you see the other pictograms on the other rocks?”

“Chris and I found the first one, with the trident on it,” Viktor said. “I’ve seen illustrations of tridents used as both weapons and hunting tools, but I’ve also seen them used in place of magic wands and staffs in mythology.”

“It makes sense if you consider that a tool is a tool so long as you decide what its purpose is,” Masu said, nodding. “I was telling Yuri and Sara that I’ve been doing research into the paranormal and the occult. This is what The Unknown Country calls ‘High Strangeness’ and it’s tied into old magic systems and witchcraft.”

“I’m sorry, witchcraft?” Mila repeated, making a face.

“It’s not like Sabrina or Harry Potter,” Masu said. “It’s more tied to psychic phenomena. Witchcraft is nature-based, and you’re imposing your will over the universe.”

“If you think about it,” Sara said, nodding, “that’s kind of what you three do with your powers over water.”

“Witchcraft could be the key to holding off your transformations or controlling them altogether,” Masu said. “Now, it’s a long shot. We won’t know unless we experiment. But it could help keep you safe from people like Kornbluth.”

“I don’t want to experiment,” Yuri said, glaring. “I don’t want to be experimented on. Fuck off.”

“Yuri, this could be a game-changer,” Mila said, smacking him. “Stop being an ass.”

“So sorry that I get jumpy whenever someone suggests experimenting on me,” Yuri snapped at her. “Sue me.”

“I’m not drawing blood or anything, I promise,” Masu said. “And when I say experiment I mean we go to a safe spot and practice meditation until something weird happens.”

“I’m game for that,” Viktor said. “I’ve done meditation before in therapy.”

Masu looked at him for a long moment. “That gives me an idea,” he said, pulling out a notepad and jotting something down. “I need to do more research, but I think this might be a good thing to try later.” He snapped the pad shut and beamed. “Okay. Can you show me where that other rock was?”

Viktor blinked. “The one with the trident? Dunno if I can, but we can try to search it out.”

“Awesome. I want to mark its coordinates; I already geotagged the other rock, and I’ll try and get out here later with Chris to get the whale one.”

“Oh, is that what you were doing?” Sara asked.

“Yep! Actually, let me geotag the cove first, and then we can go find that trident stone.” Masu hefted his bag again and started making his way down the incline. Sara followed after him, probably because she wanted to see more of the lagoon.

“This is… wow.” Mila ran her hands through her hair. “This is a lot.”

“Yeah, it is,” Viktor agreed. “I can’t believe you found another stone.”

“He thinks we were meant to find it,” Yuri said, making a face. “It’s really weird. He was talking about ghost hunting and bigfoot hunting earlier too.”

“How much of a stretch is Sasquatch anyway?” Mila wondered, shrugging. “Or ghosts? We’re freaking merpeople, guys.”

“This is stupid,” Yuri said, starting to walk away. “I’m wasting my time being out here. Nothing’s gonna happen with all three of us on the island. I wanna go home.”

“Your ride home is either on the island with you or at the college library, which means you’re walking a shit-ton either way,” Mila pointed out. “Did you even bring a bus pass?”

Yuri didn’t have a bus pass; his mom had refused to let him get one. “Shut up.”

“Yuri, we won’t be here all day,” Viktor said. He sounded tired and kinda grouchy. “We’ll finish up and ditch before Chris and Beka can convince JJ to drop his grid search and then you’ll have the rest of your day to yourself.”

“He’s just being a jerk because someone beat him at his favorite video game,” Mila said, her tone dripping in disapproval.

“Leave me alone! I worked hard at getting that base!”

“I’m not judging anything,” Viktor said, shaking his head. “Everyone has their hobbies.”

“Shut up!”

Mila rolled her eyes. “He’s being really nice to you despite how rude you’ve been to him, and that’s all you can say?”

“You’re both annoying,” Yuri said, turning and stomping away.

Actually, they all were annoying. Sara was acting like a fucking tourist, oohing and aahing at every little leaf and rock that she found. Viktor was acting all butthurt, like he couldn’t let go of Yuri’s comment from earlier (and so what if Yuri pointed out his massive forehead? It wasn’t like no one else noticed it!) Mila was mad at him, and she fucking threw him into the water out in the open! And not to mention that Masu now knew everything! Everyone else might be cool with it, but he worked for the marine park and hung out with all those creepy scientists. Yuri wasn’t going to trust him until he… uh… renounced science?

I don’t have to trust him with anything, Yuri decided. He kicked a rock to punctuate his thoughts.

Being out on the island sucked; even if he had his phone on him instead of being in Sara’s backpack, there was no point in powering it on with no signal. He couldn’t even go find Otabek to get away from everyone else, because he wouldn’t be able to explain away what he was doing on Islaluna in the first place. Plus, he didn’t want to run into JJ, who was definitely going to be obnoxious and even more annoying than Viktor or Mila could ever be.

Today sucks, he thought. He and the rest of his guild were going to try and retake Andromeda after he got home from whatever they ended up doing on the island, but that wouldn’t be for hours.

“Yuri, don’t wander off,” Mila called in an exasperated tone. “Last time you did, we ended up falling in the lagoon.”

Fuck off!” he bellowed back at her, and then yelped when Mila managed to whip a glob of water out of the lagoon and splash him from behind.

“Oh, wow,” Masu said as Yuri transformed and flopped over like a beached dolphin. “That’s… wild.”

“I think I’m getting better at this,” Mila said, flexing her fingers as Sara and Viktor snorted.

“Fuck you!” Yuri snapped, rolling on to his back so he could dry himself off with his powers. “That’s not funny!”

“You’ve been a little shithead all day, you deserved that,” Mila said. “And you can’t complain about being exposed, there’s no one near us.”

“Maybe we shouldn’t be doing this anyways,” Masu said. “We’re supposed to be investigating the cove–”

“We’ve already done that a million times!” Yuri said as steam rose off his tail. “There’s nothing there except the rock!”

“Didn’t you find that necklace charm in the lagoon?” Mila asked, looking at Viktor. “The one you lost?”

“Okay, leave me alone,” Viktor said, his shoulders hunching up. “It fell out of a hole in my jeans pocket. That isn’t entirely my fault.”

“No one said it was,” Sara said, kicking off her board shoes and stepping into the water. “Ahh, that feels so nice. I should have worn a swimsuit.”

“You didn’t?” Mila said, raising an eyebrow.

“I thought we’d be going through the jungle, mostly.”

“I want to find that other stone with the trident on it,” Masu said. “Viktor, would you be willing to help me find it?”

“Sure,” Viktor said. “Not exactly sure about how helpful I’ll be, since it was mostly an accident before.”

“I think you being around will make us more likely to find it,” Masu said.

“Synchronization,” Yuri said as he transformed back and stood up, brushing off his shorts.

“Synchronicities,” Masu corrected him. “Exactly.”

“I think it’s all bullshit,” Yuri informed them. “This is all random chance, and every chance sucks.”

“Oh my god,” Mila said. “You just never stop complaining. You come with me and Sara so you don’t bother Viktor with your bitchy attitude.”

“He’s fine,” Viktor said, but his face said otherwise.

“Like I said,” Mila shook her head. “Yura, with us.” She strode over to Yuri and seized his wrist, tugging him south towards the ledge that they’d all fallen off of during the eclipse.

“If you find any more ground stones, have someone stay with it so we can find it again and tag it,” Masu called. “Meet up back here in about an hour, okay?”

“Got it,” Sara said, and they dragged Yuri into the jungle.

 

“This is so stupid!” Yuri said for the eighth time as they trudged through the brush, searching the forest floor for more weird stuff. “I bet there’s nothing else to find here.”

“Keep saying that,” Sara said, sounding very tired. “I’m sure you’ll scare anything potentially interesting away.”

“What the fuck would I be scaring away?” Yuri demanded as they cleared another few feet. “There’s nothing here except birds and bugs.”

“JJ thinks this island used to have people on it, potentially,” Sara said. “And we found stuff that was man-made. We have no idea what could be here.”

“Give it a rest, Yura,” Mila said. “You’re exhausting.”

“You’re annoying!” Yuri shot back at her. “You two think this is all some big adventure, but it’s not! It’s insane, and dangerous!”

“We’re handling it well so far,” Sara said, shrugging. “A few close calls, but nothing serious yet.”

Yet,” Yuri repeated, disgusted. “We keep getting too close to being exposed or permanently fucked, and then we act like everything’s fine and not like we’re fighting for our lives!”

“We’re not fighting for our lives,” Mila said. “We’re figuring stuff out, and you can’t expect us to have everything downpat after just a couple months.”

“You sure about that?” Yuri gave her a withering look. “Did Dedushka’s story about the mermaids in Russia not scare you enough?”

“I’m glad that you took that seriously,” Mila said. “But your grandfather even admitted that we don’t know enough about this stuff.”

“I think we do know enough,” Yuri argued. “They got exposed and had to run away. That’s all I need.”

“I think that Masu had a good idea,” Sara said. “Think about it. What if you could unlock some hidden powers by mastering your mind?”

“That sounds even more bullshit than moon magic,” Yuri retorted. “All of this sounds like horse crock.”

“Ooh, that’s a new one,” Sara sniggered. “And it’s worth a try.”

You losers can try,” Yuri said. “I’ll stay safe and hidden.”

“Hey, if it works, Viktor and I will be able to hold off transforming,” Mila said, shrugging. “You’ll come crying to us when we manage something cool.”

“You two couldn’t manage anything cool if your lives depended on it,” Yuri answered, rolling his eyes. “And for the record, it totally does.”

“That’s not very nice to say,” Sara observed.

“You’ll be a lot more bearable when you retake your space base,” Mila said. “Or else we’ll just throw you in the ocean again.”

Fuck you!

“There he is!” Masu’s voice suddenly called. He and Viktor emerged from the trees to their right. “There you are,” Masu added. “We tagged the trident stone. I have a theory about the locations of the stones, but I want to wait until we tag that whale stone.”

“You didn’t touch the stone, did you?” Mila asked Viktor.

“Not this time, but I’m pretty sure I did last time,” Viktor said. “Nothing happened then.”

“Maybe you touched the stone and it actually did do something to you that made you weird for the full moon,” Yuri said, making a face.

“Nothing happened that first full moon right after that time,” Viktor said.

“You didn’t get moonstruck, I did,” Mila reminded him. “Yura might have a point.”

“Let’s head back to the lagoon, I bet there’s something in the waters around the island that we haven’t seen before,” Masu said. “Sara, I know you don’t have a suit or anything, so you can man the radio in case Chris or Otabek calls us.” He handed the radio to Sara.

“I still think it’s a dumb idea,” Yuri said. “We’ve been in the sea around there and we didn’t see anything.”

“We didn’t know what to look for back then,” Viktor said.

“Yuri, I’m going to throw you in the lagoon again,” Mila said, glaring at him. “I had some sympathy for you yesterday about the game base but you’re really cheesing me off today.”

“Cheesing?” Yuri repeated, making a face.

“Ooh, I like that,” Masu said. “I’m trying to cut down on all my cussing, I’ll have to start using that.”

“Chris will make fun of you for that,” Viktor said. “And then he’ll start using it.”

“Good. He needs to cuss less, too.”

“You’re all so lame,” Yuri said, and everyone glared at him.

“C’mon, the cove should be this way,” Masu said, turning in the direction that they’d come from. “Let’s go.”

 

They found the lagoon again quickly, which annoyed Yuri more than he’d admit out loud. This time, all five of them headed down to the beach together.

“We should break to eat,” Sara said, handing the radio to Mila so she could dig in her pack. “I have granola bars, everyone take one.”

Yuri took two and tore the wrapping off one before shoving it in his mouth. Sara had brought the s’more flavor, which elevated her in his opinion.

“Yuri, you’re a freaking animal,” Mila groaned, snatching the other bar from him.

The radio in her hand crackled to life. “Hey, is anyone there?”

“It’s Beka!” Yuri said, spitting out his granola bar. “Baba, answer him!”

Mila made a face at him, but pressed the button on the front of the walkie. “What up?”

“We’re heading out in the Zodiac,” Beka said back, in Russian.

“Oh shit,” Viktor and Yuri said at the same time.

“Russian?” Sara made a face. “JJ must be nearby.”

Masu frowned. “What did he say? I heard ‘Zodiac’ in there.”

Otabek spoke again. “JJ wants to get in the water. He has scuba gear. Get everyone out of the water and head inland.”

“Fuck,” Mila finally said, pressing the button again. “Okay, got it. Thanks for the heads-up. Over and out.”

“Over and out,” Otabek responded, and then the radio went silent.

“What was that?” Sara asked. “Mat and I didn’t understand any of it.”

“He says JJ wants to get in the water, so Chris is taking him out in the Zodiac. He’s got scuba gear, which means he’s probably certified to dive,” Viktor said.

“Ah, drat,” Masu said. “Chris mentioned that JJ asked him to bring his gear and an extra tank.”

“He’s going to be in the water, so we need to not be,” Mila said, putting the radio in her pocket. “In fact, I think we should maybe head deeper into the woods again to avoid running into him. Chris will be able to keep everyone away from your rental, so he won’t even know we were here.”

“Fuck that guy!” Yuri said. “He doesn’t belong in the water out here!”

“You try to tell him that,” Sara said, rolling her eyes at him. “The guy’s like a bulldog with his teeth in a t-bone steak.”

“Fuck him,” Yuri repeated.

“You feeling protective of this island?” Mila asked, crossing her arms and raising her eyebrows. “After all that talk about how much you hate everything?”

“Fuck you,” Yuri snapped. “I don’t want him getting near here. I trust him less than I trust him.” He pointed at Masu, who blinked at him.

Sara pinched the bridge of her nose. “Yuri, oh my god.”

“Yuri’s bratty attitude aside,” Viktor said, bringing his hand down in a slicing motion in the center of them. “Mila’s right. We need to move away from the beach and further into the trees just in case JJ manages to find this place.”

“Let’s go,” Masu agreed. “Although, Otabek had an interesting theory that he mentioned earlier.”

“Do tell,” Mila said as they began to retreat from the beach, Yuri definitely dragging his feet.

“He said that he thinks the island or the cove might be sentient, or protected? Either way, you can’t just walk up to the cove unless you’re allowed, however that happens.” Masu shrugged. “Like I mentioned earlier, when Chris was saying I wouldn’t be able to find the cove without one of you helping. I don’t know how to explain it, but I think something is letting us find this place. I’ve been coming to this island for years, and I’ve never seen it before. Chris and I have dived out by the kelp forest just north of here, and I had no clue that this little inlet existed until this full moon.”

“So you think JJ wouldn’t be able to find this place?” Sara asked as they picked their way through the plants. “Because he wouldn’t be allowed?”

“It’s just a theory,” Masu said.

“It’s insane,” Yuri said, feeling like he’d been saying it ad nauseum. “All of this is insane and I hate it.”

“Sure you do,” Sara said, ruffling his hair.

“Fuck you!” Yuri snapped, jerking away from her. “Cut that out!”

Mila and Viktor both shot him exasperated looks.

“God, Yuri,” Viktor said. “I’m getting sick of this from you.”

“Fine,” Yuri said, stopping in his tracks. “Leave me alone! You’re all annoying anyway!” He turned on his heel and stomped back in the direction that they’d come.

“Yuri, come on!” Mila called after him, but he ignored her.

“Let him go,” Viktor said, his voice fading as Yuri got further and further away. “I’m sick of him and whatever bit his ass earlier.”

Yuri had half a mind to yell back at them, but he knew better than to get into a shouting match when they were trying to be stealthy. He swallowed down his retort and threw himself into the next random patch of bushes that he could find.

 

The seaward side of the island was mostly cliffs, for some reason. Except for the lagoon, there were no beachy parts for a boat to land anywhere on the west coastline of Islaluna. If someone wanted to land a boat, they’d have to go on the side that faced the mainland.

Yuri ended up north of the lagoon and meandered along, staying far enough away that he wouldn’t be in danger of falling off.

He could still see the water, and after a moment he noticed something bright orange standing out against the blue of the ocean.

It’s Chris’s boat, he realized, edging closer to the dropoff. They were setting down anchor near the kelp forest that he’d seen the last time he’d come out here. He could barely make out individual figures moving around, but he knew Beka had to be there.

Suddenly, a savage desire to spy on the boat gripped Yuri, and he broke into a run so he could make it back to the lagoon before JJ and Chris could dive.

He scrambled down the incline and jumped into the lagoon waters, kicking a bit deeper before the transformation overtook him again and gave him his tail back. Now stronger and more streamlined, he locked his arms in front of him like a diver and swam out into the open sea, cutting through the water like a knife.

The ocean wasn’t completely crystal clear this close to the shore - visibility was only a couple dozen feet or so, but Yuri knew his bright orange-yellow tail would stand out in the murk, so he kept his eyes peeled for the divers. He stuck closely to the cliffs, ducking behind rocks and stuff that jutted out, moving cautiously only after he’d checked the area completely. It was slow going, but he felt pretty good about himself as he moved further north, hugging the island as he went.

Finally he saw it; a black figure moving in the distance, silhouetted against the bluish-silver surface above. He stayed put, looking for the second diver - it didn’t matter who was who, because he was going to stay hidden from both of them.

He watched, and slowly he could make out the shape of Chris’s boat, floating in place and held by the anchor. Eventually, he was able to pick out another swimmer, down near the sea floor. He saw the sweeping of a flashlight beam and checked that his tail was hidden before hunkering down closer to the rock he was hiding behind.

He watched as the swimmer got excited - oh, shit, that must be JJ - and began to ascend towards the surface, slowly and controlled. He grabbed the other diver’s attention - Chris? - and they both headed towards the boat.

Not sure how long JJ would be distracted, Yuri darted out of his hiding spot and made a beeline for the area JJ had been looking at. He immediately was able to spot what JJ had been so happy to find.

Another fucking rock! He peered at it, squinting to make out the shape of whatever was carved into it, and recoiled when he recognized the two-armed swirl that had been on the ceiling in the secret chamber under the island.

He glanced up at the boat and saw movement. Making a snap decision to not risk it, he powered away to hide in the kelp forest. He felt something in him unknot when he realized he’d made the right choice; JJ and Chris were descending again, and JJ was holding something in his hand. Yuri would bet his gaming PC that it was a camera or something like it.

JJ signaled something to Chris as they descended back to the sea floor, and then got up close to the carved stone set into the ground. Yuri just observed as JJ started taking pictures, each photo accompanied by a flash of light.

He watched for a while longer as they continued to poke around the ocean’s bottom, and JJ even flicked on a flashlight and swept the beam over the rocks and the sand and the weird not-coral. Chris kept trying to get JJ to head over to the kelp forest, but Yuri saw JJ shake his head each time. He was edging towards the midpoint of the island.

Fuck, I should probably get out of here, he realized, and waited until both of the divers were facing the other direction before he made a break for the lagoon entrance.

He sliced through the water and easily made it back to the lagoon, and once he was safely through the opening, he peeked out to see what was happening behind him.

Yuri’s eyes widened and his blood ran cold when he saw that one of the divers had turned back, and he was close enough to recognize JJ’s dark hair instead of Chris’s bleached blond. He couldn’t tell for sure if JJ had seen him, but considering his luck…

JJ began to swim towards the lagoon entrance.

FUCK!

Yuri scrambled away from the open sea, circling around the rock at the center of the lagoon for cover. He tensed, waiting for JJ to suddenly round the corner… but minutes passed and nothing happened.

Deciding that his luck was starting to hold out for him, Yuri cautiously swam back to the opening to peer out again.

JJ was a dozen yards or so from the entrance, and at first he seemed to not be moving. Then, as Yuri watched, he began to jerk. Almost as if he was having a seizure.

Yuri blinked and frowned, waiting, but JJ continued to almost hover and twitch. Then he saw a burst of bubbles escape JJ’s mask, and realized that something was very wrong.

Oh, fuck fuck fuck–

Yuri broke cover and swam over to the Canadian, whose face mask was turned upwards towards the surface. The hand that Yuri could see was spasming, and Yuri could see that the other was tugging on the breathing apparatus.

He wouldn’t–

The hand holding the breather twitched, and Yuri caught it and shoved the breather back into JJ’s mouth. The diver didn’t respond to his presence, but continued to spasm.

He’s going to die if I don’t get him up to the surface, Yuri realized. He circled behind JJ and grabbed the older guy under his armpits, making sure his grip was firm before he started swimming them upwards.

He remembered something about scuba divers having bad reactions to coming back to the surface too quickly, so he didn’t rush. JJ hadn’t been too far down, but Yuri couldn’t be too sure about anything and didn’t feel like chancing it. He glanced around, but didn’t see Chris or his boat anywhere, which meant it was up to him.

There were a couple dozen feet still between them and the surface. Yuri kept climbing steadily upwards, JJ going very still in his arms.

Finally, after what felt like an eternity, Yuri broke through to the air and rolled JJ onto his back in the water. The diver was unresponsive, so Yuri pulled the breather from his mouth and tugged the mask from his face. Seawater rushed out of the mask, and Yuri pulled it off to reveal that JJ’s eyes were closed. He coughed, and Yuri rolled him onto his side facing away from him. Lucky he had, too, because JJ retched and coughed even harder.

“Eew.” Yuri grimaced.

Another head popped up a few yards away: Chris. He began to swim over with an athletic stroke, and pulled his own mask off his face. “Yuri, what the fuck are you doing out here?”

“He was drowning,” Yuri cut him off. “He was about to get into the lagoon, but he started seizing. I had to pull him out.”

“Is he– is he awake?” Chris swam around and checked JJ’s face. “He’s unconscious,” he finally said. “My boat is that way. Help me get him in sight of it, and then get the fuck back to the mainland.”

Yuri immediately complied without saying anything, helping Chris drag JJ along back towards the kelp forest and his Zodiac. After a while, Chris stopped him and pushed his head down, and Yuri took it for the dismissal that it was. He ducked back underwater and sank down low enough that no one would be able to see him from the surface, watching as Chris began to pull JJ back over towards the boat again.

Beka and JJ’s girlfriend were still in the boat, and eventually they managed to get JJ himself hauled back onto it. After a moment, Chris was pulled back onboard as well. Yuri watched as someone reeled in the anchor, and then he heard the motor start and the boat peeled away.

Fuck, he thought, and began to swim back to the mainland.

 

Yuri dragged himself onto the beach, making sure no one was around, and used his powers to steam the water off his tail. He was so lost in thought that he didn’t notice Mila and Viktor popping up to the side until they yelled his name.

He shot them a sour look for the noise that they were making and waved them over, not saying a word until they beached themselves alongside him.

“What the fuck, Yura!” Mila finally hissed as Yuri transformed back to his regular self. He got up so he could kneel next to Viktor and start evaporating the water off him.

“Yuri, why did you leave without trying to find us?” Viktor demanded. “Sara’s still got your phone, we had no idea what happened!”

Yuri shrugged. “Sorry. I fucked up.”

“You sure fucking did!” Mila said, glaring. “We were worried sick until Chris called on the radio! What the fuck happened out there?!”

“JJ tried to get into the lagoon, I think,” Yuri said as the steam rose off of Viktor’s dark purple tail. “He had some kind of spasm attack before he could actually do it, and I saw it and dragged him to the surface so he didn’t fucking die.”

Mila and Viktor went silent, and when Yuri looked up at their faces, they were exchanging worried expressions.

“Did he see you?” Viktor asked slowly.

“No idea. He was out cold when we surfaced.”

“Fuck,” Mila said again. She flopped back against the sand. “Chris and Beka are inbound with him now, I bet.”

Viktor finished drying off, so Yuri moved on to Mila. “Where’s Masu taking the boat?”

“The rental place is in the north marina,” Viktor said. “He and Sara will be driving the van down here to pick us all up, it’ll take around an hour overall. We’ll just have to wait for them.”

Yuri groaned, but accepted it as consequences for his rash actions. “Sorry.”

Mila and Viktor both blinked.

“Wait, did you just apologize?” Mila asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’ve been an absolute asscock all day and I’m sorry,” Yuri grumbled. “None of you deserved that. This week has sucked.”

“I definitely get that,” Viktor said, and Yuri winced. “Apology accepted, Yura.”

“I’m not letting you off the hook that easily,” Mila said, crossing her arms as she finally transformed back. “You owe me, somehow.”

“Fine,” Yuri said as they all stood and brushed the sand off their clothes. “I’ll let you win at Bloody Roar.”

“Okay first of all, I can beat you anytime fair and square. Second, that’s not how owing favors works, Yura.”

“Whatever,” Yuri said, letting it slide. He had no energy left in him to fight anymore. “Let’s go meet Chris at the docks.”

 

They had beaten Chris back to the marina, surprisingly. The three of them were waiting as Chris pulled the Zodiac into the docking spot and worked with Otabek to moor the boat so it wouldn’t drift off.

“Hey Chris,” Viktor called. “You need any help?”

“We got it,” Chris said, shaking his hand and spraying water droplets everywhere. The three of them backed away to avoid getting hit.

Otabek caught Yuri’s eye and put a finger to his lips, and Yuri nodded.

JJ was sitting up and awake, which was actually a relief. He looked shellshocked, and Isabella was rubbing his arm.

“I’m telling you, I saw her!” JJ finally burst out, glaring at them all. “I know what I saw! I literally saw a mermaid down there!”

“Honey,” Isabella said, wincing. “Your oxygen levels were low. I think you were hallucinating. We should go to the hospital just to be safe.”

“I wasn’t hallucinating! I saw a mermaid with a gold tail and blonde hair, and she showed me the entrance to the cove!”

Viktor and Mila turned to glare at Yuri, who was suddenly hot with a mix of fury and mortification. JJ thought I was a girl?!

“He saw you,” Mila hissed.

“This is literally why we didn’t get into the water!” Viktor added.

Thankfully, they were both talking in Russian, so only Beka could understand them. And Beka was shooting him an exasperated look, so Yuri could only wilt a little.

If I hadn’t been there, would he have even found the opening to the cove? The kelp forest was actually pretty far away from the lagoon, and the only way that JJ would have been able to find it would be for someone to lead him to it…

Yuri had fucked up, bad. Luckily, Chris and Beka were going to play it off for sure.

“I didn’t see a mermaid down there,” Chris said, shaking his head.

Technically true.

“Dude, how could you not have seen her? She was so bright, she stood out against the surroundings!”

“Dude,” Chris said, making a face. “I didn’t see her because she wasn’t there. I was a little more concerned with how you suddenly disappeared.”

JJ stared at him, aghast. “I can find the cove entrance again, and I’ll prove it to you,” he finally said. “There are mermaids in the cove, and I’ll bet that’s where they live.”

“Sweetheart,” Isabella said, pinching the bridge of her nose. “If there were mermaids in the bay, we definitely would know about it. There’s no way anyone would have missed it, we have a ton of marine biologists just over there!” She waved in the direction of the conservation center.

“I’ll prove it to all of you,” JJ declared, clenching a fist. “Islaluna is the key to all of this - the lost city, the secret civilization… I just need more data.”

He gathered up his gear and strode away to his car, Isabella trailing helplessly in his wake.

Everyone left behind turned to stare at Yuri, who slumped in exhaustion.

This… is not good.